Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache

June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

White people! Who do they think they are, with their pinky skin and little dogs. And their sweaters, my god. What a bunch of weirdos!

The question of who ‘the whiteman’ is, really, and what he thinks of himself is addressed in Basso’s piece — by not being addressed at all. In fact “the whiteman” is only considered as a cultural construction in relation to a particular group of Western Apaches; individual white people are neither considered nor consulted. Who the whiteman is and what the whiteman is like depends on the place, the person speaking and the circumstance of whatever utterance (5). Because the category is itself unstable, characterizations (and subsequent analysis) of humor directed at “the whiteman” must therefore be regarded as highly contingent “symbolic inventions” (14).

Basso’s project, then, is admittedly limited — using theories of play forwarded by Bateson and Goffman (11), among others, he describes a particular kind of satirization undertaken by a particular group of people (geographically located in Cibecue, AZ) highlighting a particular understanding of what it means to be a whiteman. Specifically, he focuses on “the performance of carefully-crafted impersonations” (6) of whitemen — 39 examples either personally observed or recorded. These performances, almost all of which were performed by men who had been drinking, are framed by a sudden shift in tone and comportment, often pulling from the stock phrases and outlandish behaviors which the community regards as characteristically “white.” As Basso explains, these performances reveal much about the joker himself (he is not shy, for one), provide information about the relationship between the speaker and the butt of whatever joke (they’ve reached a level of comfort conducive to and absorbent of mock insults), and highlight the relationship between the joker, the butt and the audience and/or larger community (everyone is on the same cultural page and is able to decode the joke/meaning in similar ways) (9; 57-60).

The cultural context is critical, and helps explain why such performances are relatively rare — in Western Apache communities, joking is regarded as a potentially dangerous endeavor, one which has the potential to tear the seams of an unproven friendship (38). Older, more weather-tested friendships (Basso utilizes the metaphor of the buckskin starting on p. 67) are much more resilient and are unlikely to be threatened by even the most ill-timed or insensitive remark (42). In fact, the stronger the relationship, the more it can handle; Western Apache men often “show off” their friendship by playing as enemies (74). Still, performing as the whiteman at a fellow Apache is a particularly dangerous undertaking because it calls attention to and requires one to be complicit in one’s own subordination. Imbuing “play” with an all-too-real cultural sore spot is often too much for even the strongest relationship, and for that reason is either not initiated or swiftly denounced (71-73) — emphasizing the idea that whitemen have a talent for making trouble even in absentia (76).

If feeder question: will use use Basso’s argument to highlight the cultural contingency of language within trolling subcultures.

If stand-alone question: will focus on Bosso’s articulation of risk-assment in relation to “dangerous” jokes, how these kinds of jokes -whatever the intention of the teller- run the risk of reifying the systems they purportedly challenge.


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